Digging deep.

Groundwater | National Geographic Society

It has been commented upon that in September 1939, at the outbreak of the Second World War, church attendance rose . Sadly after this rise attendance began to decline again and accelerated post 1945. Move forward 70 years and to the current pandemic, although physical attendance has not increased – we have been closed for much of the last year – there are signs of an interesting trend.

Most churches who have moved their worship online have seen a much larger number of people viewing the service than they would expect to attend on any normal Sunday. Even more surprising has been the fact that Google has reported the use of the word ‘prayer’ in online searches increased by over 50% in the first months of the pandemic. (Almost the same figure as the decline in people searching for flights!) Also a recent poll of American Christians found that many of them said their faith had been strengthened during the pandemic.

People who experience traumas tend to question some of the assumptions they might have had about their faith – what pastoral theology calls ’embedded beliefs.’ These beliefs may include ideas about who God is, the purpose of life or why evil events happen to good people.

These embedded beliefs are the ones we accept either from our parents or from the church family we choose to join, often we do so without thought or question at the time. Many Christians have a deep rooted belief from the tradition that God is all good and that evil emerges when God ‘rightly’ punishes people for their sins. In other words, an all-good God would not punish someone without a reason.

Christians raised with that assumption might ask what made them incur God’s wrath if they contracted COVID-19. In such an event, the embedded belief in a punishing God may become something called a negative coping strategy – a coping strategy that has negative effects on a person’s life.

If they feel God is punishing them for no reason, they may feel confusion or try to identify something that is problematic or sinful about their identity. As a result, their faith becomes something that is a source of stress or cognitive dissonance rather than a source of comfort.

Traumatic events are often confusing for people because they don’t make much sense. In other words, traumas differ from the expectations of everyday life, and as a result, they seem to defy meaning or purpose.

However a positive spiritual approach is when individuals begin to recognise that some of their beliefs have been challenged by the trauma. People start to discern which embedded beliefs still make sense and which need to be revised. Faced with trauma many Christians will begin to draw on prayers, personal reflections, rituals and conversations. These have been shown to function as positive coping mechanisms that help individuals feel more grounded in the aftermath of a trauma.

Over time, these resources help individuals develop more intentional beliefs, meaning consciously chosen beliefs that take their suffering into account. These might include reasons why the suffering occurred and what its significance is for the overall meaning of the person’s life. Over time the individual replaces embedded beliefs with ‘deliberative’ beliefs, or beliefs that are chosen. Individuals will then have a sense of commitment to these beliefs because they make sense in light of the trauma.

Some people may argue that the suffering of the pandemic logically ought to turn people into atheists. the philosopher Bertrand, Lord Russell, argued that Christians should accompany him to a children’s hospital unit because they would inevitably stop believing in God once they saw such profound suffering. The way humans experience suffering spiritually, however, may not necessarily lead to atheism or agnosticism. Indeed, research from experts who study the intersection of psychology and religion has found that events that could be labeled as traumatic do not necessarily destroy faith. (Kenneth I. Pargament – The Psychology of Religion and Coping.)

Trauma often challenges so many assumptions about who we are, what our purpose is and how to make sense of a traumatic event. Faith-based beliefs and practices offer meaningful resources to help navigate those questions.

This is why spiritual beliefs and practices across various religions can often lead to faith strengthening rather than weakening, following a trauma.

With the closure of churches during the pandemic many Christians have had to look elsewhere to find answers to the questions they face. I would argue that rather than ‘escaping’ the challenge of pandemic by coming to church Christians have had to dig deep into their own spiritual resources to face the challenge of the pandemic.

This not something new. The exile to Babylon forced the people of Israel to question their embedded beliefs and came back with a deeper understanding of God and a faith which was stronger because of the trauma of exile, not weaker.

We have dug a deep well to find the spiritual refreshment we needed over the past eighteen months, let’s not abandon our endeavours to return to the stagnant waters of assumed beliefs.

“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13).

God bless and take care, Alan.

It’s Biblical!

One phrase that has been used about the current pandemic is that it is of “biblical proportions.” Those commentators and journalists who use this phrase sadly have no concept of what a ‘biblical’ plague is really about. Just because it is large and widespread does not make it ‘biblical’.

The choice of words conveys more than just scale. Biblical stories of devastating famines are familiar to many, but we must understand that famines in biblical times were interpreted as more than mere natural occurrences. The authors of the Hebrew Bible not only used famine as a mechanism of divine wrath and destruction – but also as a storytelling device, a way to move the narrative forward.

Underlying the texts about famine in the Hebrew Bible was the constant threat and recurring reality of famine.

Israel occupied the rocky highlands of Canaan – the area of present-day Jerusalem and the hills to the north of it – rather than fertile coastal plains. Even in the best of years, it took hard work to produce a harvest each year. The rainy seasons were brief; any precipitation less than normal could be devastating.

Across the ancient Near East, drought and famine were feared. In the 13th century B.C., nearly all of the Eastern Mediterranean civilisations collapsed because of a prolonged drought.

For the biblical authors, rain was a blessing and drought a curse – quite literally. In the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of Moses,  God says that if Israel obeys His laws, “the Lord will open for you his bounteous store, the heavens, to provide rain for your land in season.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-14). The opposite was destruction, “The skies above your head shall be copper and the earth under you iron. The Lord will make the rain of your land dust, and sand shall drop on you from the sky, until you are wiped out.” (Deuteronomy 28:23-24)

The Bible’s association of famine and other natural disasters with divine anger and punishment paved the way for faith leaders throughout the ages to use their pulpits to cast blame on those they found morally wanting. Alcohol, abortion, homosexuality – all have been blamed for natural disasters seen as God’s divine wrath.

For the biblical writers interested in legislating and prophesying about Israel’s behavior, famine was both an ending – the result of disobedience and sin – and also a beginning, a potential turning point toward a better, more faithful future.

Other biblical authors, however, focused less on how or why famines happened and more on the opportunities that famine provided for telling new stories.

Famine as a narrative device – rather than as a theological tool – is found regularly throughout the Bible. The writers of the Hebrew Bible used famine as the motivating factor for major changes in the lives of its characters – undoubtedly reflecting the reality of famine’s impact in the ancient world.

We see this numerous times in the book of Genesis. For example, famine drives Abraham and later Isaac into Egypt

Similarly, the book of Ruth opens with a famine that forces Naomi, the mother-in-law of Ruth, and her family to move first to, and then away from, Moab.

The story of Ruth depends on the initial famine; it ends with Ruth being the ancestor of King David. Neither the Exodus nor King David – the central story and the main character of the Hebrew Bible – would exist without famine.

All of these stories share a common feature: famine as an impetus for the movement of people. In ancient times this was a physical movement into a strange land, residing where you had to abandon land, kin even religion. You no longer had power and became vulnerable.

What does the ‘biblical’ pandemic have to say to us today?

Is it God’s wrath for our sinfulness? Well I don’t believe in a wrathful God so no!

I believe that if we think theological about the pandemic then there are two lessons we can take from this year of hiatus. First we can look with greater compassion on the refugee and the migrant and recognise something of their powerlessness in the powerlessness we have experienced. Secondly it gives us the opportunity to move our ‘narrative’ forward if we are courageous.

God bless and take care, Alan.

Opening the Door

Church Door Red - Free photo on Pixabay

“When we return, we will all be newcomers.”

It was just a throw away comment, but the more I thought about what was said the more profound I believe the comment was.

Of course! We will all be newcomers, again.

As our churches begin to reopen in larger numbers after a year of on-again, off-again COVID-19 closures, our habits in these once-familiar physical spaces have been broken.

What was instinctive and comfortable in March 2020 is now, for many of us, just outside the realm of memory. How did we share life in these spaces? How did we get work done here?

Even with a widespread yearning for a return to normalcy, we may find that our familiar places now feel somewhat foreign. Ongoing and necessary health and safety precautions will change the ways we interact in these spaces.

There will no longer be impromptu meetings around the coffee table. Many meetings will still be via Zoom, or if in person they will have to be carefully planned, the meeting room laid out very differently. Fellowship will have to be much more intentional, less small talk and more meaningful conversation – ‘Time to talk of God’.

On Sunday mornings, social distancing may mean that our usual pew can no longer be “our pew” because it’s now reserved to be the buffered distance between us. Some of us may find ourselves distributing individually wrapped, carefully sealed communion wafers and wine glasses to the faithful as they enter – no gathering around the table for weeks to come.

It’s not only that our past habits have been broken; in some cases, our very ways of being in spaces together may no longer be advisable or possible. We will have to create new ways of being community together. What was that comment?

“We will all be newcomers.”

There’s also a deeper distancing that has occurred over the last year in our churches. We may now be strangers not just to physical spaces but also to those with whom we previously shared those spaces. So much life happens in a year, even in a year of pandemic lockdown.

While congregations and organizations have tried to sustain community in difficult circumstances, there are still so many stories, so many experiences that we did not share with each other in real time. There’s been grief and joy that simply went unspoken.

The poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes,

“When someone you haven’t seen in ten years / appears at the door, / don’t start singing him all your new songs. / You will never catch up.”

If she were to write it today, we can imagine her saying, “When someone you haven’t seen except by Zoom / appears at the door …”

While it is tempting to agree that catching up will be virtually impossible (pun intended), one of the particular gifts of religious communities is that most of us do some of our most intentional ministry with newcomers.

In this moment after we have missed so many other moments, we will need the best of what we know from that to help us find a way of being back together.

For example, we have cultivated practices for welcoming one another and inviting one another to share in something larger than ourselves — the mission of the church in the world.

At our best, we know how to listen for, celebrate and receive the gifts of each new person.

We know how to help each other share our stories of heartbreak and hope and, in each telling, find new layers of meaning.

We know how to invite people into service in the world that is good for the world and deeply fulfilling for them personally.

We will need all those capacities and all that experience to help us be, and become more than, newcomers together.

Said it so casually, so clearly: “When we return, we will all be newcomers.”

In eight words, we hear the truth that reopening our buildings was never going to be as simple as unlocking the doors, turning on the lights, roping off a few pews or putting out hand sanitiser — not that those things are all that simple.

Reopening our buildings, resuming life together, is an emotional and spiritual challenge. It is good news for us that congregations know how to be in those spaces with faith, hope and love. Now as ever, the world needs all three.

God bless, Alan.

Something for Sunday

This is one from my personal archive but I thought it could do with another airing.

John 20:19-31

Now Jesus did many other signs that are not written in this book but these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the messiah, the son of God and that through believing you may have life in his name.

This is perhaps the key verse in the whole of St John’s gospel. It’s a kind of preface or introduction even though it comes at the end. Here’s a book of stories, signs and scenes the author says each one written down to help you believe in Jesus and reveal something of the truth about him. By believing in him you will have life in his name. That’s the promise-the sales pitch if you like.

So in this story of the risen Jesus’ appearance to doubting Thomas what is being offered to us? How is this story a clue to the new life we might have in Jesus’ name? Where are we in all this? What I see in this is a warning and an encouragement.

But first a word about Thomas himself. Thomas comes across in the gospel as simple, devoted and straightforward. When Jesus sets out for Bethany putting his own life in danger Thomas says: Let us go that we may die with him! Later in the upper room it is Thomas who asks a clear and simple question: We do not know where you are going. How can we know the way? Like us he really wants to believe more strongly. This realism and simplicity has its down side though as we are about to see.

Thomas sounds very modern. Just like us. He wants to know the facts. He will only believe on the basis of the evidence. It’s got to be good evidence too. And what’s more he’s got to test it all personally. He won’t accept anything on the basis of someone else’s testimony still less on the authority of his community. The Bible can say what it likes and Ministers and Priests can say what they like but he’s got to know it for himself. A rational, evidential approach confirmed by personal experience.

Many people at this season begin their thinking about Easter by asking: What really happened? The belief that God raised a man from death seems improbable but if we could only collect some more facts we might get to a decision as to how improbable it might be. Facts that’s what we need, more and more of them, scientists, archaeologists, bible scholars, questers for the historical Jesus-they can all help-but only give us more facts and then we might believe.

I’m sorry Thomas. This isn’t going to work. The truth is that you and I make sense of our experience by applying to our experience our beliefs. Our ideas about the world determine what we see and experience within it. It is the mark of a successful politician or spiritual leader that they can persuade us to change our beliefs. Once our beliefs have changed the facts will soon fall into place.

Many casual readers of the New Testament assume that if only they had direct access to the experience that were vouchsafed to the first disciples they could believe as they did. A closer reading of the texts show that many of them were as sceptical as we are. Thomas we have already referred to, Matthew records that some doubted when the risen Jesus appeared before them. Mary Magdalen thought the risen Jesus was a park attendant, the travellers on the Emmaus road didn’t recognise the stranger and so on. The truth is that there never was a privileged moment when a favoured few saw face to face and believed while the rest of us have to make do with seeing through a glass darkly. All of us see in a glass darkly- all walk by faith and not by sight.

That’s the warning. Now for two words of encouragement.

Belief is formed within a community. It is the community that believes and so our creeds begin with the words: we believe. You can’t be a fully integrated member of any club or group unless you learn its language and share its values and assumptions. So the road to belief begins by simply being there and being together. This is what the risen Jesus tells his disciples to do. Wait together and be together.

But notice. Thomas was not there when Jesus made his first appearance to the disciples. Consequently he finds belief in the risen Jesus difficult. He cannot see or know as the others know because he was not there with them.

Clearly the message for us is be there. Be with other followers of Jesus, share their vision and receive Jesus’ peace. You came to-day on a Low Sunday. Congratulations. This is the place to be and you are in very good company.

Thomas recognises his Jesus and then makes a good confession and then Jesus addresses a question to him and a word of blessing and encouragement to us.

Have you believed because you have seen me? Thomas answer must surely be yes. But there’s a hint in Jesus question that this might not be the best way to come to belief. Then Jesus says to him and to us. Blessed are those who have not seen me and yet believe.

I used to love that verse because it encouraged me to think that belief without sight constituted some sort of achievement. How wise and spiritual I am and we are if we believe notwithstanding the absence of some special experience. But that may be a misunderstanding. You have not seen nor have you had a special experience but that is to your advantage –true faith is not based on an accumulation of knowledge, facts or special experiences. Such things can easily mislead you. How easy it is to have an experience and miss its meaning.

True faith tends not be based on research or the accumulation of data as Thomas mistakenly imagined. It isn’t ultimately a matter of knowing it’s a matter of unknowing-a matter of unlocking the capacity of the deep mind to receive and believe something new. My best ideas tend to come to me in the silence of the small hours-not when I’m sitting at the desk with half a dozen books around me. In a similar way it is at such moments that I remember the name that was on the tip of my tongue earlier in the day, the phone number or address I couldn’t remember. People who tell stories about their conversions often describe them in terms of a moment of surprise. True faith isn’t simply the fruit of study it’s a gift.

This gift of faith comes from God whose nature and name is love who made us out of love and dwells within us. He is closer to us than the very air we breathe as St Augustine says. Our discovery of faith is a discovery of our true selves-the spirit of a loving God active in our hearts and minds but we must learn to be open to that.

Where then do we go from here?

Not in a fruitless search for more and more facts. No amount of data can ever provide final satisfaction and true faith. To advance down that road is simply to end up in the hands of Richard Dawkins.

Rather the way to a true faith in the risen one lies in being with his disciples and being open to an acknowledgement that the risen Jesus dwells within our hearts. It is there that we must behold him and it is in our hearts that we must welcome him in.

The old chorus has a lot going for it I think. Remember it

He lives, he lives

Christ Jesus lives to-day

I know he lives today

You ask me how I know he lives

He lives within my heart.

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday (Easter Vigil) – Immanuel Lutheran Church

There is a popular saying in western Christianity that I must admit I don’t particularly like – ‘It may be Friday but Sunday’s coming’. I’ve always felt Holy Saturday is an entirely under utilised theological resource. It is part of our Western psyche that wants to jump forward to the resurrection, get to the point, resolve the story, tie it up with a nice neat little bow, and run the ‘happily ever after’ closing screen. 

The COVID-19 pandemic would not play our Western game of shortcuts and quick fixes. 

An often-overlooked component of the incarnation is the three days that Jesus spends in the grave. God doesn’t stop where we live but goes before us into death. Meeting with us in our brokenness, Jesus does not give up when things get uncomfortable; he willingly gives his life. He trusts the Father and moves into the unknown. 

Some of our church members, particularly those hesitant to engage anything “digital,” report that there was no “Easter Sunday” in 2020. The church was “closed.”  In one sense they are right but really they missed the point of resurrection.

The Coronavirus forced us to stay in the tomb. We have been living in the tomb time for over a year. It’s been a long Holy Saturday. This requires us to have faith and obedience in the face of uncertainty. 

Romans 6:4 and Colossians 2:12 reveal not only the astonishing depths of God’s love but also indicate our place is with Jesus in the tomb. This descent into the tomb with Christ is part of our journey to spiritual maturity. It is a move toward our own resurrection life. This inverts the modern world’s values of honor, prestige, and power. 

The tomb forces us into an uncomfortable state of liminality and confusion. Like Cleopas and his companion we get on with life but with a slower step, “But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things took place” (Lk 24:21). The tomb represents separation, disorientation, and living in the in-between. As we look to engage in new ways of mission, different ways of being church, innovate, and create new things, we hit the wall of disappointment and failure. 

The late theologian and author Alan Lewis wrote, 

‘The second day appears to be a no-man’s-land, an anonymous, counterfeit moment in the gospel story, which can boast no identity for itself, claim no meaning, and reflect only what light it can borrow from its predecessor and its sequel, not its number in the series, but its place, bears its significance, as that day between the days which speaks solely neither of the cross nor of the resurrection, but simultaneously remembers the one and awaits the other, and guarantees that neither will be heard, or thought about, or lived, without the other.’ (Alan E. Lewis, Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday)

While we often pass right over Jesus’ time in the grave as a non-event, it is of paramount importance. The Scriptures, church tradition, and the creeds affirm a “descent into hell.” We can safely say that Jesus was busy during the darkness of the tomb, yet the implications are perhaps beyond our finite comprehension. 

We can learn a lot from what the disciples do during this time. A cursory review of the Scriptures may respond with “not much” or at least “nothing to be proud of.” They had a funeral of sorts (Jn 19: 38-41). They rested (Lk 23:56). They waited (Jn 20:2). They hid out (Jn 20:19). Some doubted (Jn 20:25). Some lamented (Jn 20:11). But they also talked, they processed, they prayed—they formed relationships while they waited, and they wrestled with the implications of what had happened (Lk 24:36). In actuality, this is a vast amount of significant activity. In fact, they were becoming reflective practitioners long before theological colleges came up with the idea!

In the ‘tomb time’ the disciples were asking lots of questions. Was Jesus really the one? What does this mean? Should we go home and go fishing? Can a person cursed and executed on the cross really be the messiah? Have we been duped? Are we going to be executed now too? Also, the timing was essential to their activity. In John’s narrative, we often emphasize the disciples’ cowardice, hiding out with the “doors locked for fear of the Jews” (Jn 20:19). Yet in another sense, they were doing the only thing they could do. Had they rushed out headlong into the streets of Jerusalem, considering the powder keg it was already, they likely would have met a quick fate. 

I believe this is what the Holy Spirit is calling the church to as we embrace the new reality of a pandemic with a long tail. The tomb time is a place to wait, reflect, connect in new ways, and learn to ask different questions. 

Tomb-time involves consciously pausing to diagnosis our context through the three lenses of hindsight, insight, and foresight. Furthermore, we are in a place of powerlessness. We are waiting for God to do what only God can do.

One of the greatest threats as we begin to emerge from the tomb time is the rush ‘back to normal.’ While the pandemic has been a time of flourishing creativity and innovation for many churches, if our goal is to get back to business as usual, we are squandering the gift. 

Normal wasn’t working before the pandemic. In fact, normal was dreadful. The traditional church has been in a death spiral of decline for decades. Outsiders look at the church and they don’t see Jesus. They see infighting, judgment, and hypocrisy. They don’t see the church as a place of healing, but a place of harm. We have failed to connect in a significant way with the last three generations in the UK. We have not ‘made disciples’ we have made ‘church members’ many of whom disengaged when we closed our sanctuary doors for the pandemic.

The pandemic gave us the gift of a reset. We’ve had a year in the tomb to wait, pray, strengthen our relationships, and ask different questions. 

Recently, some church leaders have stepped forward to critique digital church. The essence of their lowly view of online church is, “that was a nice temporary solution, but now let’s get back to real church.”  

But what about those of us who found digital church to be just as real, or even more real, than a church centered in a building? What about all the disciples we actually made in digital space? What about the ways we learned to inhabit digitality in such a way that it brought healing to the isolated and the suffering? What about all the people who will never set foot in our sanctuaries who found a home in a digital community?  

As we move toward resurrection Sunday, may we remember that resurrection is about continuity, not replication. Jesus is raised from the dead in his same body, but it is different. New creation describes a radical change of state. The wound-bearing Jesus is the same, but different. May we come out of the lockdown phase of the pandemic, the same, but different.  

God bless,

Alan.

A Survey of the Wondrous Cross

This Good Friday I have been asked by our parish church to submit a meditation or theological reflection on three verses from John’s gospel. John 19: 28-30. I submit it to your judgement sisters and brothers.

When I had just arrived in Coventry I had a conversation with the Anglican vicar with whom I was to work in an ecumenical project. He greeted me with these words: “Peter, what did Christ do for us on the cross?” I answered swiftly and clearly quoting the apostle Paul. He then declared in terms, that I was a fit and proper person to work with him in the parish.

I liked him! I liked this emphasis on doctrine. It also brought home to me the importance of another New Testament text namely 1Peter 3:15. “Always be ready to make a defence to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you.” I had shown myself to be ready. Are you likewise ready? I merely ask.

All of us in our separate ways must be ready to answer that question. What did Christ do for us on the cross? In framing an answer we are not alone indeed we have gathered here today to do what Isaac Watts did-undertake a survey of the wondrous cross; to probe its mystery and to encourage each other in faith, hope and love. In our thoughts and reflections this afternoon I have been assigned three verses from the fourth gospel-that of John. So it’s his answer to the question posed above that I will be focussing on for the next few minutes.

John sets out his stall very early in his gospel. “Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”. That’s from chapter 1 before Jesus has uttered a word.

Jesus is the Lamb of God-a sacrifice offered in a new Passover which will inaugurate a new Kingdom-a new world order if you like. Jesus is to offer himself as a sacrifice upon the altar of the world. He is both priest and victim.

Throughout John’s account of the passion Jesus is shown to be in control of events. He declares that he is thirsty calling to mind Psalm 69 but also John chapter 4   when Jesus began his ministry to the Samaritan woman by expressing a need. A sponge is placed on hyssop and lifted up for him to receive. Why hyssop? This is to fulfil another text Exodus 12 v 22 in which Moses cites the use of hyssop as a part of the Passover sacrifice.

Then Jesus declares: “It is finished.” The sacrifice is complete. Or to use a Methodist phrase: tis done the great transactions done. He bows his head and gives up his spirit. This is more significant than first appears. Normally a victim dies and then bows his head involuntarily. But Jesus bows his head first and then gives up his spirit. Does Jesus commit suicide? To us this seems unthinkable but in the ancient world suicide was a noble act. Jesus remember is both priest and victim.

One might also remember the noble sacrifice of Captain Oates lauded at the time of his passing from Anglican pulpits-and his famous last words-“I am going out and I may be some time.” Sometimes I use this form of words when popping out to the shops. Not everybody gets the reference.

In order to get a sense of what all this might mean for us consider the first Passover-that night that is different from all other nights. The night when the Passover lamb is sacrificed and the angel of death passes over Egypt sparing the children of Israel but smiting the first born of all the Egyptians. And in this moment when God shows his power the children of Israel are led out from Egypt into the desert to become God’s holy people and to be made worthy of the new land that has been promised to them.

To be made worthy of the Promised Land is no straightforward matter. Very soon the children of Israel were grumbling about their new circumstances. Egypt had been a real consumer society, plenty to eat and the children of Israel remembered with regret their fleshpots and plenty of public sector employment. Some of the big infrastructure projects are still standing and can be seen from outer space to this day. Of course things had become somewhat disagreeable in recent years and the contributions that the Hebrews had made to good governance in the country had been forgotten. There arose as scripture says a Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.

And now behold a new Passover and Jesus is the new paschal lamb slain upon the altar of the world to bring in a new creation for the redeemed people of God. This the invitation, this is the grace freely given and ever given. But it comes with a call to be the people risen with Christ  to declare their faith and show by deeds that their sins are forgiven. And the first of these deeds is the call to leave Egypt and follow Jesus, the way, into the desert and then over Jordan to the Promised Land.

Let’s be clear about Egypt. This is a state of being not a geographical entity. There was a large Jewish community in Egypt, the land, until the late 1940s. It was in Egypt that the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek and in Egypt in Jesus time was a centre of Jewish of Jewish philosophy and scholarship. I well remember visiting John Newton’s parsonage in Olney, Bucks. Over the mantelpiece in his study was this text: “Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondsman in the land of Egypt and the Lord thy God redeemed thee.”

We too are called to come out of Egypt but this is a difficult and costly call. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is a costly grace not a cheap grace.

We too are in bondage to the pharaohs of this world who know neither Joseph not Jesus. You know their names!! We too love our fleshpots, we are almost desperate to go shopping again and we believe that the graces given by economic growth will be ever given.

A sign has been given to us in recent days. A 200,000 ton container ship stuck in the sands of Egypt laden with the products of the east to feed the misguided consumerism of the west. Its name “Ever Given” but not like the grace of God freely given –not at all. This is the devil’s grace and it too is costly grace a cost born by all the poor and disadvantaged people of the world.

In the cross we see clearly our evil-the abuse and misuse of the natural world to make instruments of torture well brought out in the poem you are about to hear. But at the same time God’s sacrificial love his gift of himself as the new Passover lamb which points to the recreation of the world and redemption for sinners like us.  As Paul expresses it:

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us therefore let us keep the feast.

Do the faithful thing.

God's Love - Experiencing The Love of God in Your Life

The last time I wrote on this Bulletin I wrote about loving could be one of the hardest things we can do. But I also want to say that loving is one of the most faithful things we can do.

Faith, at least for me, is not first and foremost about thinking the right ideas about God. Faith is a sincere and intimate connection with and commitment to a person.

Faith comes down to sharing our life with a friend. In my case, that friend is the risen Christ. As the late Marcus Borg once put it, ‘believing is actually be-loving’. And Jesus was pretty clear about how to love him.

Shortly before the Last Supper, some Jews from outside Israel—came to see Jesus. When Andrew and Philip came to check if he wanted to meet with some potential new followers, Jesus reminded them what loving him was going to look like:

“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also.” (John 12:24-25)

In ‘The Universal Christ’, Richard Rohr says “Christians are meant to be the visible compassion of God on earth…. They agree to embrace the imperfection and even the injustices of our world, allowing these situations to change themselves from the inside out, which is the only way things are changed anyway.”

As is often said, hurt people hurt people. Our common strategy for dealing with our pain is to find somebody to blame for it. We try to fix our pain by causing pain in someone else. Instead of healing our pain, blame multiplies and intensifies it.

Jesus invites us to join him in the only truly effective way to mend our lives. The way of love. When we acknowledge that we are all hurt people then and only then can we begin the healing process.

When we recognize that my pain is our pain, we take the crucial step away from blame to compassion. To use Henri Nouwen’s phrase, we become the wounded healer instead of the wounded victim.

We love Jesus by loving other people. Real people. Without exception. In all the messiness of their lives. And, yes, that means sharing their sorrow and suffering as our own. Elsewhere, Jesus called this loving your neighbour as yourself.

Sometimes, this will just wear us out. At the end of a long day, we may have nothing left to give. Now and then, we will need a mid-afternoon nap, a long weekend, or a walk in the park with our dog.

That’s okay by Jesus. He knows that love is hard work. We need a rest. And as it turns out, that’s an act of love as well. Sometimes the hardest one. The act of loving yourself.

God bless,

Alan.

Do the hard thing.

Lately, life hasn’t been feeling like, well, life. There’s been too much loss and loneliness and fear and anger and exhaustion and boredom. We miss eating out and visiting friends, going to the gym, and traveling. And we miss hugs.

When I was a student in the 1980’s I did a lot of running There was once an advert for running shoe whose strap line was ‘Made to do hard things’. Implying that it was not just the shoe but the runner was made to do hard things. I can assure you running up and down the hills of Sheffield was hard!

But honestly, we’re also meant to do tender things. To be close to one another. To give and to receive understanding and comfort. To share tears and laughter. To be, at least for a moment, just a little less guarded with each other. That’s why we miss hugs. We miss life.

Medical professionals and government leaders assure us that the vaccine will save us from this restricted and frustrating life we live at present, and in important ways, I believe that they are telling us the truth.

Hopefully masks and physical distancing will become an increasingly distant memory. The daily death count will disappear from our newspapers’ front pages and stop scrolling across the bottom of our TV screens. The life we’ve been missing will return—sort of.

It’s more accurate to say that the life we had known will return. What we call ordinary life is a sort of half-life. The pandemic simply highlighted and amplified its pattern. As a result, our yearning to be saved was able to announce itself to us with visceral urgency.

When I talk about salvation here, I don’t mean that we want to be whisked away from planet earth to a faraway heavenly dwelling place. Nope. I mean we are drawn to become who we really are. In her book, ‘Dusk, Night , Dawn’, Anne Lamott says, we are ‘loving awareness with skin on’.

The reason we need saving is that we are not just love in the flesh. We are also, as Anne puts it, ‘walking personality disorders’. We are a mix of things. Anne’s pastor says that we have dual citizenship. “We have the human passport with all our biographical details and neuroses engraved on it, and the heavenly one, as the children of the divine.”

Sadly part of that ‘Human Passport’ can mean that when we are hurt we are tempted to hurt others to try and achieve some kind of solace. For a while, it can feel good to judge others and to nurture resentments. Even when we realise how lonely and grumpy we’re becoming, we can find it pretty hard to live a different way. Sadly many congregations are hamstrung in their mission because of the internal lack of forgiveness that pervades our congregations.

But you know, it might just be that the advertising campaign was right. We were made to do hard things. We were made to love.

On this planet, love looks like admitting that we are fragile and wounded. As hard as that kind of vulnerability is, it’s even tougher to do the only thing that will make us whole: forgive.

While we’re talking about forgiveness, let’s be honest that we need forgiveness for our unforgiveness. If you’re anything like me, that’s going to involve admitting that you’ve done your share of dealing with your own wounds by wounding others.

Yep, in our personal lives, we were meant to do hard things. And my experience is that salvation—feeling connected to others and being at home in my own skin—lies in doing these hard things.

But I’ve also learned that I cannot do them on my own. At least in my life, I do these hard things by cooperating with a love that is always given to me. I do not save myself.

That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

He was willing to do the hard thing. To love us because that’s who he is. And his love is what makes it possible for me to move toward being who I truly am: loving awareness with skin on.

We were made to do hard things. We were made to love.

God bless and stay safe,

Alan.

Against Zoom

Just over a year ago the word ”Zoom” referred to a camera lens. But now Zoom has a different meaning altogether and refers to the popular video-conferencing app. It was novel at first but now it’s beginning to pall as a way of worship and a mode of meeting. I dislike looking at myself as if into a mirror when speaking. I also miss the sense of full body context so that you can become aware of the boredom or irritation of others. Gestures and body language are easily missed –formal disagreement with a speaker is difficult. I have also discovered that you can do other things while zooming such as reading texts and following up links and the rest of the meeting is oblivious to your activities.

I have set a personal limit on the number of Zoom meetings I can cope with per day without endangering my psychiatric well-being and emotional stability. That number is three. A webinar counts as half a zoom. I look forward to Zoom free holidays.

How do you feel about worship on Zoom? How do I feel? On a daily basis I attend Morning Prayer by Zoom with Anglican colleagues and friends. There is a set order which is screen shared, the two readings and psalms change every day and the intercessions are offered on a free and extemporary basis. There are three daily tasks: leader which includes the extemporary prayers, reader and responder. There are five regular members of the group although sometimes a sixth person joins us. It works very well and has now been going five days a week for a year.

Other forms of Zoom worship can also be a positive experience provided there is an opportunity for everyone present to be seen and to make a real contribution. What I personally dislike is the splicing together of various elements: prayers, readings, sermon and song for transmission to a passive congregation of viewers at a later date. I find this to be an utterly sterile experience perhaps especially when I myself have preached the sermon.

The Christian faith is faith in God who has become incarnate in the man Jesus. The word has become flesh and dwells among us. (John 1 v14) Bodily presence matters. We acknowledge the presence of the risen Christ among us in one another and in the bread and wine by which that presence is particularly signified. The word has become flesh not a video conferencing app.

It is all very well to read spiritual books, think lofty and enlightened thoughts and cultivate an enhanced condition of soulful life but the presence of Jesus, our incarnate God, is about his presence in one another and especially in those who particularly need our help. The others really matter. Now I am not denying the value of periods of solitude and silence. Methodism would benefit from a lot more silence. As T S Eliot wrote: “Even the anchorite who meditates alone prays for the Church, the body of Christ incarnate”. We have been deprived for a long time-a year without the Lord’s Supper!  Who would have believed it possible!

St Paul in 1 Corinthians speaks of Christian worship as the time when we come together.

“When you come together each one has a hymn, a lesson, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.”

Sound good to me. Let it come soon!!